In our church we’ve heard powerful messages recently about the grace of God that is available to us through Jesus.
Basically what we have been hearing is the same message that the Apostle Paul preached two thousand years ago and that was rediscovered by Martin Luther, John Wesley and others. It is good news that is always fresh and never grows old – the good news that we don’t have to work hard to earn God’s favour, that we have his acceptance as a free gift, purchased for us by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
This is great news for people who have been beating themselves up and always feeling like failures because they can’t seem to “do well enough” as Christ-followers. It is wonderfully liberating to realize that Jesus has taken the burden of failure from our shoulders and paid the price for every sin we have ever committed or will ever commit. Because of this amazing fact, we can come into our Father’s presence without fear, confident of His love and acceptance.
I love this emphasis, but I do have a concern. There were two contrasting errors that plagued the New Testament church. One error was the tendency to set aside the good news of acceptance by God as a free gift, and go back to Jewish religious rules. The other error was the tendency to set aside all restraints on behaviour, based on a mistaken understanding of the truth that in Christ we are totally free. If you read the letters that the New Testament apostles wrote to young churches, you see them having to deal with both problems.
My concern is that in a well-meaning attempt to emphasize the amazing liberty that Jesus has made available for us, we can end up giving the impression that the moment we start to emphasize guidelines for righteous behaviour, we are going back to “law” and that this will automatically put us into bondage. But that’s not what Paul himself said. He did warn the Galatians (Gal. 5:2-6) against going back to the religious requirements of Judaism, and told them to hold on to the freedom that Christ had won for them. But he also took issue with the thinking and behaviour of the Corinthians – a group of Christians coming from a city known for its immorality. They didn’t seem to realize that although God loves us, he is not pleased when his children indulge themselves in incest, gluttony, drunkenness, and other forms of immorality. Paul warned them that such behaviour dishonours Christ and then told them “I myself am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law” (1 Cor. 9:21).
So – is there a place for law in the life of grace? We can’t be saved by law – we can’t be saved by trying to make a list of all God’s requirements and keeping them to the best of our ability. That is an attempt doomed to failure, and totally ignores the saving work of Christ on the Cross. But if we have accepted the free gift of Christ, there is a new kind of law – not a written legal code, but the over-ruling power of the Spirit – that draws us to holy living, not as a way to be saved, but as an outcome of our salvation. And because it takes time for new believers to learn the ways of God, sometimes we still need someone to point out to us that certain types of behaviour do not fit in with our Christian identity. This isn’t bondage – in fact it is a key to walking in liberty. True freedom isn’t doing whatever you please, but learning that in Christ you are free to do what pleases God – and that in the end this will make you happier than anything else.